Call this The Theater of What’s Permitted.
On July 12, the day it was announced that the Nobel Peace Prize-winning human rights activist Liu Xiaobo had died while a prisoner of Chinese security authorities, there was a protest in front of the building that houses Beijing’s Hong Kong liaison offices. There was a table garlanded in white chrysanthemums, a photo of Liu and a condolence book.
There was also a heavy police presence, strict limits on how many people could pass by the table, a slow pace and a long line of hundreds of protestors. It was the only such public observance of Liu’s death in all of China.
One week later, in a Hong Kong seafront park, more than 1000 people turned out for a Memorial Service marking the 7th day since Liu‘s death. There were speeches, a video from the Nobel Prize Committee and a rock concert. It was, again, the only such public salute to Liu anywhere in China.
But the turnout was small, compared to the tens of thousands of Hong Kongers who turned out in early June for the annual remembrance of the deaths of protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989. The big turnout was traditional, and it was –like the Liu Xiaobo memorials — permitted … but this 2017 edition of the annual demonstration against what is seen as the Chinese Government’s suppression of Hong Kong democracy may come to be seen as the last of the good old days.
Because here’s what been playing at The Theater of What’s Not Permitted.
July 1, 2017, the 20th anniversary of the handover of sovereignty over Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to China, would have traditionally brought tens of thousands of democracy-minded people out to Victoria Park in the heart of downtown. But not this year. This year Victoria Park was given to a pro-Beijing organization for a celebration of loyalty to China, and a down-sized group of democracy protesters was only permitted to gather at a lesser location.
Already the anniversary had been marked by Chinese President Xi Jinping who warned political opponents not to cross his government. Xi suggested that Hong Kong should become a more loyal, acquiescent little island, like nearby Macau. Hanging in the air, an “or else.”
Also this July, the newly-selected chief Executive of the Hong Kong government, Carrie Lam, signaled she got the message and intended to follow political advice from Beijing. A local court finished removing 6 pro-democracy members from the Hong Kong Legislative Council, for mocking China during their swearing-in ceremonies. Their absence should radically increase Carrie Lam’s powers.
But only if she stays in character in the Theater of Perpetual Petitions for Chinese Permissions.
As Anson Chan, the deputy leader of Hong Kong’s government just before and just after the 1997 Britain-to-China power shift put it to Keith Bradsher of the NY Times: “More and more, there is a sense of futility. …We have this enormous giant at our doorstep,” she said, “and the rest of the world does not seem to question whatever the enormous giant does.”
Stephen Vines does. Our guest today, a veteran of Hong Kong journalism who writes for the Hong Kong Free Press, the Hong Kong Economic Journal’s Insight blog, and has credits at The Guardian, The South China Post and the BBC, among others, Stephen Vines has been outspoken about Beijing’s betrayal of Hong Kong’s promised political autonomy.
He summed up a recent post in the Free Press – “There is little doubt that after 20 years, progress on constitutional reform has been stalled, freedom of expression is on the decline and civil liberties are under threat.
So, this is where we are in 2017” he wrote. “The situation is neither dire nor sustainable.”
Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist, writer and broadcaster. He has written for the Guardian, South China Morning Post, Daily Telegraph and The Independent. Vines is the author of several books, including: Hong Kong: China’s New Colony, The Years of Living Dangerously – Asia from Crisis to the New Millennium and Market Panic. He was previously a correspondent for the BBC and consultant editor for The Asia Times.